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Is there a future for FD-SOI?

16 Jun 2015  | Junko Yoshida

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As a reporter, I sometimes come across a thread of offhand comments, random facts, tweets, tradeshow panels or P.R. propaganda that helps me connect the dots, especially when it is about fully-depleted silicon on insulator (FD-SOI).

As I travelled from the United States to China and then to Europe, talking tech with people in the electronics industry, FD-SOI—an elusive subject that's hard to cover—has begun to grow more tangible.

Newly emerged random facts I picked up over the last few weeks include:

  • The chairman of China's "Big Fund" recently visited SOITEC in Grenoble, France (a sign of the Chinese government fund's eagerness to explore FD-SOI).
  • GlobalFoundries' CEO Sanjay Jha took a meeting with key executives in the FD-SOI ecosystem (Jha is said to have asked tough questions like "Where are the [FD-SOI] customers?")
  • Ongoing discussions in Shanghai to turn Shanghai Huali Microelectronics Corp. into an FD-SOI foundry. Huali is a joint venture majority-owned by the Shanghai government. Minority stakes are held by Huahong Group, Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. and other investors.
  • The announcement at Design Automation Conference this week about details on partners for Silicon Impulse, a network of design services and support facilities designed to support FD-SOI chip developers.
  • Samsung's "all-in" pitch as a foundry for FD-SOI at DAC
  • Both FD-SOI proponents appear to have started changing their tune on FD-SOI. Their emphasis no longer pits FD-SOI vs. FinFET. Now, they're promoting the FD-SOI process for analogue, mixed-signal and RF circuits. (This could be a smart move on the part of FD-SOI promoters.)

It's easy to downplay FD-SOI as a process technology too late from the gate, especially now that leading chip manufacturers Intel and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) appear to have made FinFET the de facto standard.

Even in China, Leo Li, chairman and CEO at Spreadtrum Communications parroted the familiar view of FD-SOI. When I saw him a few weeks ago in Shanghai, he told me how FinFET's cost is going down and its yield is getting better. "Had we had FD-SOI two years ago, it might have been a different story," he noted.

Add to the mix Intel's recent $1.5 billion investment in Tsinghua Unigroup, who now owns Spreadtrum. The Chinese enterprise is riding piggyback on Intel's foundry business strategy and gunning for 14nm FinFET, with sights set on 10nm.

China: the future of FD-SOI?

However, Wayne Dai, CEO of VeriSilicon, takes a contrasting view. Dai sees China as the future of FD-SOI. Rather than playing eternal catch-up in the finer-node race in FinFET with TSMC or Intel, he believes now is the time for China to invest in FD-SOI and leverage it as an alternative low-power process.

In an interview in Shanghai, Dai acknowledged FD-SOI's three big challenges: "lack of substrates, IP and customers." For anyone pondering to adopt FD-SOI, each challenge poses problems big enough to think twice about FD-SOI. But in Dai's mind, none will remain roadblocks for too long.

Samsung Slide1

(Source: Samsung)

SOITEC, armed with its proprietary SmartCu manufacturing technology, already makes SOI wafers both in Europe and in Singapore. Japan's Shin-Etsu Handotai (SHE), a subsidiary of Shin-Etsu Chemical Co. Ltd, has been supplying SOI wafers since 1988. The company, which has licensed Soitec's Smart Cut technology for thin SOI wafers since 1997, also supplies FD-SOI wafers.

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